Mapping the derelict lines of the Bay Area

The old railroads that once defined the Bay Area and the country at large are typically just hinted at. Some lines only operate freight; others, overgrown rails, but many are just sinewy lines on a parcel map. While we do have old maps showing where the rails were, these are rail maps, not service maps.

Some years ago, I used old timetables to create a service map of Marin’s Northwestern Pacific Interurban, which brought to life a system that has been gone for over 70 years. This year, I decided to do the same thing for the whole of the Bay Area, and I’m launching a Kickstarter to fund prints and maps of other regions of the country.

The first map, for the Bay Area, shows every train published in the 1937 Official Guide to the Railways that began within the 9-county Bay Area. After lines leave the Bay Area, the map shows their last convergence points before major hubs like Los Angeles. If you want a print, head on over to the Kickstarter page.

Historic Railways of the Bay Area

Historic Railways of the Bay Area. Click to enlarge.

The maps makes clear how much of a legacy these old rail companies left to the region. BART’s southern East Bay lines largely follow the Western Pacific right-of-way, while Amtrak still follows the Southern Pacific, including the A5/A6 route to San Jose. The map also shows some of the oddities leftover from competition, like the parallel Amtrak and BART lines, sometimes just a few blocks from one another.

To the north, BART’s Bay Point line follows the Sacramento North, while its route to Richmond blends ATSF and Southern Pacific rights-of-way. Caltrain still runs on Southern Pacific track, as does ACE.

I don’t think anything runs on the dinky little Bay Point & Clayton right-of-way, which itself is a fun story.

If you like railroads, and you like cool maps, then you really will want to sponsor. Seriously, $40 is pretty good for a 24×24 poster.

I also have prints of my map of Marin’s Northwestern Pacific Interurban. Next up is the Washington-Baltimore region. I’m not sure what’s next, but I’m really excited to see what comes out of the mist.

About David Edmondson
A native Marinite working in Washington, DC, I am fascinated by how one might apply smart-growth and urbanist thinking to the low-density towns of my home.

40 Responses to Mapping the derelict lines of the Bay Area

  1. Pingback: Today’s Headlines | Streetsblog San Francisco

  2. Brian Coyne says:

    Great map! Also sad to see what a shadow of its former self the current rail system is.

    By 1937 were all the lines running into western Marin and Sonoma (ie from Santa Rosa to Sebastopol) already closed down?

    • Dexter Wong says:

      The Petaluma and Santa Rosa RR continued to operate as an electric freight railroad (passenger service ended in 1932) until 1947 (Interuban Railways of the Bay Area by Paul Trimble, Valley Publishing, Fresno, CA, 1977), it was dieselized then and had occasional freight runs into the 70s.

      • Mike B says:

        I lived in that area in the mid-1970s. Somewhere during that time (around 1975?) SP (which by then owned it all via NWP) put in to abandon the P&SR segment between Sebastopol and Petaluma. There as an outcry to make it a trail, but that went nowhere because several adjoining large landowners wanted nobody there – in fact, they took over the old r/w through reversion. A short time later, the city and Caltrans wanted to fix up the streets in town that had tracks in them, and with no more regular freight customers SP finished abandoning the line.

        A couple of short pieces still exist in Petaluma, but only as freight spurs or abandoned but not removed track. There’s been talk about running a streetcar on the track on the wharves along the Petaluma River, but so far nothing more than talk.

        Good source for Olde Stuff: –

  3. Bruce says:

    What happened to the Dumbarton rail bridge? If I’m not mistaken, that was around in 1937. Or are these only passenger railroads?

  4. Dexter Wong says:

    Very good article, but the Sacramento North was actually called the Sacramento Northern, a merger of the San Francisco-Sacramento and the Northern Electric (Chico-Sacramento) railways. You could try and find a copy of Stindt and Dunscombe’s book Northwestern Pacific (long out of print) for the definitive story of North Coast railroading.

  5. lambright says:

    Korbel in Guerneville had a stop.

  6. Rob Anderson says:

    With my Cub Scout troop, I took the train from downtown San Rafael to Tiburon circa 1952, which must have been near the end of the line for that rail line.

    • Probably. I actually couldn’t find timetables for that San Rafael-Tiburon line, though it does appear in maps. I left it off because of the lack of timetable backup, unfortunately.

      • Mike B says:

        Re. Tiburon: Again, the reference books would have the full story, but I don’t remember (from the 1950s) any passenger service south of San Rafael on the NWP. The Tiburon line remained in place for a while as a freight line and access to the railroad shops in Tiburon, but was torn out by the mid-1960s. Much of the line from Trestle Glen into Tiburon is now a bike path chez Google.

  7. Franz Listen says:

    Southern Pacific ran a ferry from Richmond to San Rafael in 1937. If a Vallejo ferry is on the map, should the Richmond-San Rafael ferry be on there too ?

    • I wish! The rule of thumb (which I halfway broke for the Marin Interurban) was that if it’s not in the timetable, it’s not going on the map. While a Richmond-SF line is mentioned, there isn’t mention of one from Richmond to San Rafael. In thinking about it longer, I’d really only want to include ferries with direct train or bus connections – again, the Interurban being the halfway exception.

  8. Pingback: A Subway-Style Map of San Francisco’s Historical TrainsAce | Ace

  9. Thomas of Baltimore says:

    If it isn’t too late to comment on which stop indicator to use, I prefer the full circles (which is the upper right of the four you posted on Twitter. Thanks in advance for considering my input.

    Amazing work you are doing there, BTW!


    Thom Wilson of Baltimore City, MD, USA

    • Thanks. Still pondering what precisely to do, but I’ve gone back to data entry on my timetables to include river steamer service for the moment.

      If you wanted to take 2 days instead of 2 hours to get to Fredericksburg, VA, you could take a steamer from the Light Street Pier up the Rappahannock. Boggles my mind that that was still a profitable mode of transportation as late as 1921.

      • Thomas of Baltimore says:

        Re: the Steamer service to Fredericksburg, perhaps it was the most affordable option to travel for the underclasses?

        Do you have a table of fares for the train and steamer?

  10. Did you choose 1937 because that was the year after the Bay Bridge opened?

    • I chose 1937 because that was the only year I could get a legible timetable. Though I have a 1921 timetable, it’s well-nigh illegible, and I never would have learned the special language of railroading using it. That it was the year after the Bay Bridge opened was nice, but none of the services shown – including on the Sacramento Northern, which later would – were operating on it.

  11. Dexter Wong says:

    After more thorough examination of the map you created, the only missing parts are the Market St. Railway 40 line which ran from San Francisco to San Mateo (a streetcar interurban), the Key System (which operated heavyweight electric railroad cars between the Key Pier and Berkeley, Oakland, Claremont and Piedmont) and Southern Pacific’s Interurban Electric (which operated electric heavyweight cars (similar to the metal Northwestern Pacific cars) from the Oakland Mole to Albany, Berkeley and San Leandro, as well as service from the Alameda Mole through Alameda connecting with the Oakland service.

    • Wow, thanks for taking the time! I would’ve loved to include those operators, but none of them had timetables listed in the Official Guide I was using. To keep things simple, I made a rule that no stops or times not shown in the Official Guide would go into the map. That way, I wouldn’t have to hunt down the 1937 timetables for the various companies who chose not to send the Official Guide’s publishers their documents.

      The one exception was the NWP Interurban, which had a very confusing quasi-timetable in the Guide. Since I already have a 1939 map, I mapped most of it out. It helps that it’s my home county, so I feel like I’ve got the permission to make an exception here.

      • MikB says:

        Another point: the SP Red Electrics and Key System (and Peninsular Rwy in what’s now Silicon Valley) were more like heavy transit lines – like BART – and may not have had their timetables integrated with the main line trains. Key System also streetcar lines in Oakland which the main line (Pier or Bridge) trains used parts of as well. So if you were relying only on the Official Guide you probably missed their services. Sac.Northern used Key System tracks from 40th/Shafter to the Key Pier (and later Bay Bridge).

        Several good books document Key System and SP electric lines in the East Bay. There are probably references for Peninsular as well but I haven’t seen them.

  12. Jay Sandeen says:

    Have you considered reconstructing route coverage for the old 20s era red and yellow cars? It would be incredibly interesting to reconstruct a map of interlocking regional transit hubs that reached coast to coast. We could easily bring it back don’t you think??

    • I would need complete contemporary timetables for both systems in the same year, as well as a map of service, to do local red and yellow car service. It isn’t on my list for now, though, given the length of my current queue.

      I’ve considered doing regional maps of through-car service, which would basically be what you’re suggesting. It would be really interesting to do something national, but that would have to be a project for next year.

      Right now, my plans are:

      – DC/Baltimore
      – St. Louis
      – Toronto
      – Frequency map of Toronto
      – Arizona (plus maybe New Mexico)
      – Frequency map of St. Louis
      – Frequency map of SF Bay Area
      – Frequency map of DC/Baltimore
      – Seattle? Vancouver? Indianapolis? Mexico City? Central America? SF Bay Area 1921? Pacific steamships?

      Frequency maps should take about two weeks to finish; full maps will take about a month. I’ll have to slow down significantly when I hit grad school in late August.

  13. LibertyHiller says:

    Dunno if you intended these to be traps, but the town in the East Bay is spelled “Hercules” and the AT&SF is spelled “Atchison”; nice work all around.

  14. Dan says:

    The Southern Pacific San Ramon branch is missing, which ran between Avon and Radum (Pleasanton) with mainline connections on both ends. Also, about two thirds of the Bay Point and Clayton railroad still exists, rails and all, inside the Concord Naval Weapons Station, where the BP&C was the foundation of their rail buildout. Most of the right of way still exists outside military property as well, snaking its way between backyards.

    • MikB says:

      Dan: Some of the olde lines are now bike trails. Large chunks of the San Ramon Branch and the southern end of the NWP are in that category. Supposedly the San Ramon Branch was bought up when SP abandoned it for transit use (similar to e-BART) but the surrounding residents raised a huge uproar and it became a bike path.

      BART from about Walnut Creek to Concord largely follows the former Sacramento Northern. BART also follows the original SP main line from about Balboa Park to San Bruno stations.

    • As far as my source material goes, by 1937 the line was no longer serving passengers, which is a gaping hole in the service for the East Bay. I’d really like to revisit the Bay Area for 1921, given the much broader railroad service, but not for a while.

  15. Richard Vantine says:

    Very nice. Although not running from/to the Bay Area, there was also the Central California Traction from Sacramento to Stockton. Peninsular Railway could use some more depiction too.

  16. Barry Scott says:

    Love this! Missing from the map, however, is Coast Line from Santa Cruz north to Davenport. Thank you!

    • Oh this is JUST the lines that ran through the nine-county Bay Area in 1937. The Davenport Line by then ran buses only between Santa Cruz and Davenport and so didn’t make the cut. If we go back to 1921 it was rail – three trains per day – with stops listed at Santa Cruz, Orby, Gordoloa (sp?) and Davenport. Still just a stub, and still wouldn’t have made it, but at least it was rail.

  17. mydigitalcove says:

    Great stuff, thank you. Ten years before my birth in the city.

  18. NancyL says:

    At one point, a rail line went down the middle of Courtland Avenue in Oakland. Do you know if that was part of this system?

    • Alas, it was not. Courtland Avenue probably hosted a Key System train, and the Key doesn’t make it on this map. The Sacramento North did run on Key System tracks, but that’s about as far as I can go with the information available.

      • mrecky says:

        Many books out there on the Key System. Route info available. Some routes are still present as parts of AC Transit bus lines (F-Berkeley for instance). But if you’re looking for RAILROAD passenger service then Key probably doesn’t belong – more of a streetcar system with some routes that were heavier with bridge units. And it all went away in the late 1950s.

        Yes, SN did use Key tracks to get to the ferry and later the Bay Bridge. The Key System books have many illustrations of that, including the interesting arrangements for power on the Bay Bridge.

      • NancyL says:

        Thanks David. The tracks were removed, perhaps to aid in the war effort at that time.

  19. mrecky says:

    Your problem will be fixed shortly, when SMART replaces many GGT runs with trains. Oh wait, how do I get to the train, and when? That’s GGT, Marin T, and Sonoma T. So sorry, transfer is another fare and you get to figure out connections yourself. More of same, but with another agency involved. Unless something has changed recently.

    I did commute on GGT many years ago. Back then, you had to figure it out yourself using paper timetables and a sometimes-answered help line, or go over to one of the big stations where an assortment of stuff and a map on the wall could be found. Oh yes, and the map in the front of the phone book. Once grokked, it all worked fairly well. Should be a little easier to use by now.

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